The Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zimbabwe), has unreservedly condemned the harassment of journalists covering the COVID-19 national lockdown by the state security agents, with the civil society organisation stressing the pandemic is the enemy, not the media.
A number of media practitioners have been arrested since the onset of the lockdown, which took effect on March 30, over practising journalism with expired press cards.
This was despite the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), an institution mandated to accredit journalists and media houses, having gazetted 2020 fees just two days before the lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
The Ministry of Information, Publicity and broadcasting Services secretary, Nick Mangwana had also said journalists, as part of the essential service, should be allowed to carry out their duties without hindrances.
In a statement this week, MISA-Zimbabwe said the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic among other major challenges poses the greatest test to Zimbabwe’s respect for its Bill of Rights, more so as it pertains to media freedom and citizens’ right to access to information.
“Commendably, the government categorized the media as an essential service, among other critical sectors, whose operations should not be restricted during the lockdown period given the important role it plays in advancing the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms,” said MISA-Zimbabwe.
“Regrettably, events during the first week of the lockdown have severely tested the country’s adherence and respect for the right to media freedom as provided for under Section 61 of the Constitution which also promotes freedom of expression. Even more critical is Section 62, which provides for the right to access to information, which is very critical in keeping citizens informed on developments and measures being implemented by government and other key stakeholders in combating COVID-19. Unfortunately, MISA Zimbabwe has since recorded cases involving the arrest and harassment of journalists and media workers (newspaper vendors) by the police during the first week of the lockdown.”
MISA-Zimbabwe said by arresting and harassing journalists who had been cleared by the responsible authorities to practise during the lockdown, the police did not only violate the right to media freedom, but the government and ZMC’s directive that the media as an essential service, should be allowed to conduct its operations without hindrance until the issuance of the valid 2020 cards.
“MISA Zimbabwe urges the government through the responsible Ministry of Information, the police and ZMC, to urgently address these discordant developments, which stand in the way of national efforts underway to fight the Coronavirus, and poses the risk of denting the country’s respect for journalistic rights,” said the civic society organisation.
“The media should be allowed to play its critical role in the free flow of information and ideas that will keep the nation informed in the fight against COVID-19 as well as the measures that individual citizens can take to prevent infections and spread of the virus. In fact, the police and the media should play a complementary role in that regard. The police should therefore not view journalists and media workers as enemies and should accordingly be guided by the Constitution in the discharge their duties and responsibilities.”
MISA-Zimbabwe also urged the media to be professional in conducting their lawful duties and ethical responsibilities in line with the profession’s codes and ethics and safety and security measures.
“This will go a long way in ensuring that citizens access accurate, credible, verifiable and useful information about the pandemic and how they can prevent contamination and its spread in their various communities,” explained MISA-Zimbabwe.
“It should, therefore, be All hands on deck against COVID-19 and Hands off the Media, in the fight against this global pandemic of which the media is a critical component. COVID-19 is the enemy and elephant in the room, not the media!”